EARLY winter dusk and a light freezing snow were falling as three carloads of people went winding along a narrow road through the dark Swedish forests and snow-covered meadows. Loaded with gaily wrapped toys, candy, cakes, fruit, and fruit juices, the cars were also filled with high hopes of the Americans and Swedes for a successful Christmas Eve party for 27 refugee children from Iron Curtain countries. The scene took place on the outskirts of Stockholm, not long after the end of World War II.
Today, 40 years later, my family and I join the world in celebrating another unusual Christmas. On the European continent, as well as in the United States, there is a great quickening of hope for better things in Eastern Europe as the news headlines hail the breaking down of the so-called Iron Curtain.
In that time and place some 40 years ago, as our caravan of cars neared the isolated Swedish country schoolhouse, we couldn't foresee what reception our intended party-throwing would receive from the refugee children.
The school loomed up ahead through the swirling snow, rich red in color and trimmed in white drifting snow. Stamping the powdery stuff off our boots, we hurried into a large vaulted room, past the welcoming smiles of the refugee camp manager and the schoolteacher standing at the door. The manager explained that because of the delicate political overtones of Sweden's harboring of refugee families right under the nose of the Soviet Bear, the children and their mothers were walking to the school for the party. This eliminated our presence from the refugee camp itself.
Everyone scurried around. Some mixed fruit punch. Others wrote children's names on wrapped gifts. Others connected lights to the giant Christmas tree in the center and decorated the fireplace mantle and windows. One set up the film projector and screen.
We worked hard at creating a holiday scene and atmosphere - remembering that these children and their families from the Baltic states, East Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union had fled their homes and lands with only the clothes on their backs and what they could carry.
Many parents had to flee carrying children on their backs. Others led families across frozen borders and deep snow-clad forests. Others sailed on small boats from darkened harbors and country moorings in search of freedom.
Since the Swedish ministry for refugees had little money for holiday frills, the youngsters and parents at the camp were provided a sturdy Christmas meal - and no gifts, except a juicy orange for dessert. Even for their Swedish hosts an orange was a luxury in the still-rationed economy. That was why the group of us - young World War II veterans and wives in Sweden for graduate study, plus members of the American Embassy and the US Information Service and their employees - had offered to host this holiday party.
Finally through the dark the children and mothers appeared, plus one father for escort, all warmly dressed, muffled, and bundled. The procession was led by one of the Swedish schoolmasters, simply dressed but brimming over with good cheer and high spirits.
After the group had filed inside and hung up coats and hats, the teacher motioned for everyone to sit. He gathered a number of the older children around him in a circle. He explained he was teaching them to speak Swedish by song and recitation. Giving them the pitch on an old pump organ, he intoned en, tvo, tre (one, two, three) and brought his arms down in the beat. Their clear voices rang out like Yuletide bells in good Swedish under the glow of many candles.
Then came the movies: ``Chimp the Chimpanzee'' zooming on a hair-raising ride on the wings of an airplane, followed by a cartoon about a little mouse who yearned to be a cat. This was a kind of international language understood by all, and laughter and good cheer began sealing the bonds of fellowship.
Meanwhile, one of the Swedes was in the kitchen transforming himself into Santa Claus or the Jul Tomte Christmas Man. As he came clomping into the room with his bulging pack and shouting a merry ``Hallo'' in Swedish fashion, a little boy named Nicolai nearly fell off his sister's lap, he got so excited.
As names were called, each child came up and curtsied or bowed in thanks for his presents. Some trembled to open them. Others saved them until they returned to camp and could open them Christmas morning with the whole family around. Little Nicolai's eyes were beaming as he toddled around with his arms overloaded with gifts. Others were intrigued by dolls and trains, footballs and hockey sticks. The final present was an oversized chocolate bar for each child.
Several children read selections in Swedish, translating into their native tongue to show their skill. One small girl sang a Russian Christmas song. Several mothers stood to sing German holiday songs, cheeks wet with tears.
The sight of homemade cakes and cookies and cups of fruit juice completed the joyous atmosphere. With crumbs on their faces, the children helped clear away the chairs so there could be dancing around the Yule tree in true Scandinavian tradition. The youngsters bounded and danced vigorously, led by the camp director and the teacher, who were having more fun than anybody. Russian danced with Pole. German danced with Swede. American danced with Latvian, until we nearly dropped with exhaustion.
After the dancing and endless thank yous in a half-dozen languages, children and parents climbed into boots and warm clothes, arms and sacks filled with presents, fruit, and candy. Many were still singing and laughing as they tramped back to camp through the falling snow. Inside, we all basked in the afterglow of the festivities and fellowship as we cleaned up and washed dishes.
The time came to pile into our cars, with the camp director and teacher waving a warm farewell as we drove off. As the windshield wipers swished off the driving snow, our cars wound back through the night forest toward our homes in Stockholm.
These days, when we hear news of refugees or hostages, our holiday party comes to mind. As we look back on the occasion ... the work we put in ... renovating old but sturdy toys ... making refreshments ... collecting money from Americans and Swedes ... the long trip over the frozen archipelago ... had been little enough to do, since it yielded our best Christmas ever.